A Strategy for Conservation

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

One of the issues that stood out for me during the recent controversy over the new Castle parks in southwest Alberta is the lack of an overall strategic plan for the conservation of our Eastern Slopes, not just the Castle River watershed. Such a plan would protect all headwaters and critical habitats, as well as provide designated trails for Off-Highway Vehicles that do not conflict with conservation goals. As pointed out by many, the banning of OHVs in the Castle parks will just push OHV users into other areas, some of which are headwaters regions, such as those found in the Oldman, Red Deer and North Saskatchewan River watersheds. Are not these headwaters just as important as those of the Castle?

2009-10 Meredith-Keith-RiverCrossing

We need a conservation strategy to protect our wild waters.

As I was writing this column, the Alberta Government on March 1 announced that it would extend the deadline from March 20 to April 19 to comment and take a survey about the draft Castle parks management plan. As well, the consultation is being expanded to include “wider conservation and land use issues in the southern Eastern Slopes, Castle parks and surrounding areas, including linear disturbances, off-highway vehicle use and trail planning.” The government is scheduling public information sessions “in the coming months.” Although OHVs will not be allowed in the parks, there will be designated OHV trails and facilities created outside the parks. So it looks like the government is responding to concerns expressed through their survey and other feedback and is indeed looking beyond the new parks. But are they looking far enough?

LUF
The creation of the Castle parks came about as a result of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan that was developed under the Land Use Framework (LUF). The LUF has a checkered history. Announced in 2008 by then Minister Ted Morton, the LUF was to provide the overall land use plans that would guide Alberta into a sustainable future, balancing the needs of an ever-growing human population with the resources available.

Initially the plans were supposed to be in place by 2012, an ambitious goal. Sure enough, the goal did not even come close to being met. Out of the seven proposed regional plans, only two (Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan) have been completed. Of the other five, only the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (started in 2014) is in process, although the pace has been frustratingly slow if not stagnated. Change of government, budget cuts and the complexity of the process have taken their toll. But the need is still there, especially in our headwater regions where the quality of our drinking water is at stake, as well as critical habitats for game species and endangered wildlife, and quality recreational experiences in truly wild places. Perhaps it’s time for the government to show the leadership it displayed with the Castle parks, and develop and implement a strategic plan for the Eastern Slopes north of the Castle parks and incorporate that plan into the coming regional plans.

2010-09 Meredith-Keith-Cutline

Walking and listening is the essence of good hunting.

Non-mechanized Anglers and Hunters
Another issue that raised its head as a result of the Castle parks announcement was the lack of representation non-mechanized hunters and anglers have on certain conservation matters. Like many, I thought the Alberta Fish and Game Association would be in favor of the new parks because they would provide the protection these areas need to ensure viable fish and game populations. However, in a February 16 news release the AFGA came out squarely in favor of OHV use in the parks. The release failed to mention any of the positive things the parks would clearly do for fish and wildlife conservation, including maintaining quality hunting and fishing opportunities. This came from a conservation organization that bans the use of OHVs or any other motorized vehicle on its own Wildlife Trust Fund properties, set aside to preserve wildlife habitat.

Now, I’ve supported the AFGA for a long time and have done work for them and my local club for many years. My friend and colleague Duane Radford and I wrote and edited the book, Conservation Pride and Passion (2008), the 100-year history of the organization, in which we worked with AFGA members from across the province. As well, I realize anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers are a diverse group, and representing all views on all issues is difficult if not impossible. However, I do feel the AFGA dropped the ball on this one. Apparently, so did many others as evidenced by the e-mail messages I received when the news release was distributed.

Many people know of my association with the AFGA and wanted an explanation about the group’s position on the parks I could not provide, except to say I was equally shocked. When I posted my shock on Facebook, the reaction was instant and likewise negative to the AFGA’s position. To be fair, some people did support the group’s position but they were clearly the minority. Several of those shocked by the AFGA were AFGA members, some threatening to withdraw their memberships.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
bha-logoA disagreement over one issue should not make or break a membership, but AFGA’s stand does cause one to wonder where his or her views on certain issues might be better represented. During my research for my previous column on the Castle parks, I investigated the various conservation organizations in Montana, seeking to understand the strong and cooperative conservation ethic there. One that popped up as most interesting to me was the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

BHA represents people who appreciate hunting and fishing on foot in truly wild places, and want to see these areas protected not only for the quality recreation opportunities they provide but also because they provide core fish and wildlife habitat that sustains many fish and game populations elsewhere. They are not against OHVs—many members use them to get to trail heads leading into non-motorized backcountry—but feel they should be left to areas that can sustain their wear-and-tear.

The organization got its start in 2004 in Oregon when a group of like minded individuals, upset with how the United State’s wild places were being managed, got together to do something about it. They decided to form an organization that would represent their views to governments and work with other organizations to conserve wild lands.

Over the last 13 years, their membership has grown to thousands. They have chapters in 24 states and one Canadian province—British Columbia.

I didn’t think much more about this group until a person who contacted me about the AFGA news release suggested I join BHA because it was trying to form a chapter in Alberta and he felt such an organization was needed here. It turned out BHA members in Alberta were organizing meetings in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge to see if enough people were interested in forming a chapter. I attended the meeting in Edmonton and was pleased with the turnout, including many young men and women. The discussion was good and did include the Castle parks, the catalyst that caused many to attend.

Although the BHA is based in Montana, once a chapter is formed all dues and donations collected remain with that chapter to do local projects. If you want to continue to have hunting and fishing opportunities in truly wild lands, check this group out.

Note: The Alberta BHA Chapter is now up and running. For more information go to the chapter’s Facebook page or its page on the BHA website.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Necessary Castle Parks

[Note: The following was first published in the March 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Anyone who has been to the southwest corner of our province is aware of the beauty of what is often called the “Crown of the Continent,” the portion of the Rocky Mountains that straddles the Montana/Alberta/BC borders. Two of the jewels of that crown abut one another at the US/Canada border: Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana. The two parks form the International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes in North America. These parks also protect a host of wildlife species, providing core populations that supplement their respective populations outside the parks.

Unfortunately, the comparison between the parks ends there. If you look at a map of Glacier Park and the surrounding territory in Montana, you see a range of protected areas from national forests to national wilderness areas that form a buffer between the national park and high use developed areas. A major difference between these protected areas and the national park is that hunting is allowed in the national forests and wilderness areas. While off-road motorized travel is not allowed in the national park or the wilderness areas, it is allowed in the national forests but only on designated trails. The national forests are also open to some logging and other resource extraction. The result is a variety of outdoor recreational experiences, from wilderness isolation through hunting and fishing on foot or horseback to limited use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs), with minimal conflict between them. The bonus is that streams and habitats are protected, producing quality fish and wildlife populations.

Castle River Float

The Castle River is one of the few blue-ribbon trout streams in Alberta.

In Alberta on the other hand, much of the crown lands outside of Waterton Lakes National Park have been open to considerable resource development and pretty much unrestricted OHV use. The result has been degraded landscapes affecting many species of wildlife, silt entering streams where it impacts fish habitat, and hanging culverts on development roads preventing movement of fish.

Why such a difference? It boils down to the different ways lands were divided between the states and provinces. The lands I described in Montana are federal lands that have been managed with a strong conservation ethic that was laid down in the U.S. by Theodore Roosevelt and others in the early 20th century. Today hunters, anglers, outfitters, hikers, and environmentalists all ban together to oppose anyone who might wish to reduce the restrictions or indeed sell off this heritage. They realize the future of their culture and lifestyles are tied up in these lands.

In Alberta, our history is different. Much of the federal crown land, outside the national parks, was transferred to the province in the Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930. That allowed Alberta to take control of the forested land and its resources for the benefit of Albertans. However, governments were often more interested in short-term gain than long-term conservation goals. The one exception was the creation of Willmore Wilderness Park north of Jasper National Park in 1959, although it was significantly reduced in size over the years to accommodate resource exploitation.

The Peter Lougheed government did develop A Policy for the Management of the Eastern Slopes in 1977 to protect the headwaters areas of our major rivers. However, subsequent governments watered down that policy and what regulations remain are often not enforced.

Castle River Trout

Great trout fishing depends on undisturbed habitat.

In the 20th century the concept of “multiple use” was what drove much wildlands policy in government forests outside the national parks and wilderness areas on both sides of the border. This worked OK when the demand for resources would allow the various uses of our forests to coexist. But in the latter decades demand has increased, and the development of OHVs has allowed more people to go deeper into the wilderness, many with apparent little regard for the destruction their vehicles cause. As people watched the degradation continue they called for more protection.

These were the issues our new government faced during the public consultation on the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan. It was obvious that steps needed to be taken to protect not only our headwaters but also the ecosystems that support the diversity of fish and wildlife and our potable water supply. That’s why the government announced last January the creation of the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park north of Waterton Lakes National Park. They issued a draft management plan and have requested public input to that plan until March 20 (on March 1, 2017, the Alberta Government announced the extension of the deadline to April 19). Here are some brief highlights of that plan.

Off-highway vehicles erode trails, stream banks and disturb fish and wildlife.

Castle Provincial Park
This park encompasses 25,501 hectares west of Pincher Creek where the major branches of the Castle River come together. This is where “front country” facilities will be maintained, such as campgrounds, day use areas, and nature and park interpretation.

Castle Wildland Provincial Park
The Wildland Park encompasses 79,678 hectares stretching from the northern boundary of Waterton Lakes National Park up the backbone of the Rocky Mountains west of Castle Provincial Park, including the headwater streams of the Castle River. It will provide opportunities for high quality “low-impact backcountry and wilderness experiences.” Hiking trails and backcountry huts will be developed to allow foot or horse access without compromising the natural integrity of the park.

Fishing
Both parks will accommodate anglers. Conservation of native species will be the top priority with emphasis on catch-and-release. Use of bait will be discouraged to reduce hooking mortality.

Hunting
Hunting will be allowed in both parks. Although hunting is usually not allowed in (non-wildland) provincial parks, it will be in Castle Provincial Park to control species numbers and reduce human conflicts. As in most wildland parks in Alberta, hunting will be allowed in Castle Wildland Provincial Park because the activity aligns with the purpose of wildlands parks, allowing low-impact nature-based recreation.

Trapping
For similar reasons, trapping will be allowed to continue in both parks, including use of OHVs to conduct business. However, some adjustments might have to be made to reduce conflicts with other users.

OHV silt

Silt from OHV use enters streams and coats spawning beds and other fish habitat.

Off-Highway Vehicles
Perhaps the most contentious issue is that of OHV use. There are several designated OHV trails in the area of these two parks, but unfortunately users often left those trails and cut their own unauthorized trails that caused a lot of damage to habitats, streams and landscapes. Several scientific studies have shown that OHVs negatively affect wildlife behavior and thus are not compatible with the conservation goals of both parks (see the piece “Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use” fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch posted on my blog).

The management plan calls for the phasing out of all recreational OHV use in both parks over the next three to five years. Effective immediately, OHV use will be restricted to designated trails only and not allowed south of Highway 774 (Castle Mountain Resort Road). Programs will begin to reclaim the unauthorized trails and repair the damage.

The OHV user community is understandably upset about this closure but it was something that should have been done decades ago before OHV use became widespread. OHVs have their place in outdoor recreation but only on trails and in areas that can sustain that kind of traffic, not in crucial headwaters and habitats.

The Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park are two new jewels in the Crown of the Continent. They will help ensure Alberta keeps its wild heritage.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Shifting Away from Consumptive Use

[Note: The following was first published in the February 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

If you’ve been following the dustup over whether anglers should be allowed to take a fish for supper from many of our lakes , you know there is a communications problem between our provincial fisheries biologists and stakeholders with regard to the state of certain lake populations and what is planned for those lakes. Reports of studies are not being released (or are difficult to find), and many anglers do not believe explanations as to why catch-and-release regulations are not being lifted for fish populations that appear to be viable.

Slave Lake perch

Is  keeping a fish for supper becoming an obsolete notion?

Ray Makowecki (a fisheries biologist and Alberta Fish and Game Association’s Zone 5 Fish Chair) has not been idle on this issue. Following the meeting of concerned anglers he organized last September at Lac Bellevue, Ray gathered together a small group of former government biologists (including me) to discuss the issues. He subsequently arranged two meetings between this group and Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) headquarters fisheries biologists in November, and in December with AEP Assistant Deputy Ministers of Policy and Planning, and of Operations—the two areas involved in fisheries management decisions.

At those meetings, there was much discussion about fisheries management policies and processes, and the lack of communication with stakeholders. All agreed there was room for improvement, especially in the communications area, but there was no indication whether changes would be coming any time soon with regard to more consumptive harvests on lakes.

For me, the two meetings illustrated the dichotomy of viewpoints between the former and current government biologists and managers. The current biologists are not as concerned about harvest opportunities as are the biologists of my generation. The latter believe that fish harvest is an important component of the management of a game fish population, and that anglers who harvest fish for the table have a stake in the health of that population and should be consulted about its management. The current biologists and managers appear to downplay the roles of both consumptive use and the opinions of anglers in the management of fisheries.

The Shift
This was brought home to me at the end of the December meeting when Ronda Goulden, ADM of Policy and Planning, stated we should be aware that there is a “paradigm shift” in fisheries management in Alberta away from consumptive use; that biodiversity and endangered species take precedence in all decisions affecting fish and wildlife populations. In a later e-mail message, she clarified that this shift has been ongoing and that AEP “strives to ensure the conservation of healthy, sustainable fish populations and fish that are available beyond those required to sustain populations are allocated to domestic fisheries followed by recreational fisheries and finally commercial fisheries. Further, fish allocated to recreational fisheries are not primarily for consumptive harvest like it was decades ago.” She added that anglers these days prefer “a greater variety of fishing opportunities such as high quality catch and release fisheries.”

And there lies the rub. I don’t doubt many anglers enjoy catch-and-release (C&R) fishing. But how many and for what lakes? For example, government fisheries biologists have told both the Stony Plain Fish and Game Association and the Wabamun Watershed Management Council that a survey of anglers who fish Wabamun Lake found that many want to see Wabamun Lake remain a C&R-only fishery. However, when the members of these organizations were polled at their respective meetings, few expressed an interest in C&R at Wabamun. Most wanted an opportunity to take a lake whitefish, walleye, pike or yellow perch home for supper. So questions arise: When was the survey conducted? How was it conducted? What questions were asked? What were all the results? Meanwhile the lake remains C&R for all species, and many anglers are wondering why when they are catching and releasing what they believe to be harvestable fish.

shore lunch

Catching a fish and eating it is part of the outdoor experience.

Yes, the shift away from consumptive use as a priority has been going on for a while. The fish allocation hierarchy that ADM Goulden mentioned (1. conservation, 2. first nations [domestic] fishing, 3. recreation fishing, and 4. commercial fishing) was set down in court rulings and government policy many years ago. Fish and Wildlife officers and biologists followed the hierarchy and in past years were able to allocate fish to consumptive recreational anglers in most lakes and streams. What changed in the last 20 or so years? Well, fish populations in some water bodies collapsed, we’re told, because of overfishing. So, zero-catch-and-keep rates were imposed. But for some lakes, the limits appear to have worked and numbers are up. Yet, there is a reluctance to lift the C&R regulations.

Management Strategy
If you read the 2014 Alberta Fish Conservation Management Strategy, you see the emphasis on consumptive harvest is being downplayed in favor of C&R. Also the strategy states that AEP operates under the “precautionary management principle” where if uncertainties exist, the least risky alternatives will be used. So, if there is a lack of scientific information about a lake, a biologist might decide to maintain a C&R regulation on the lake despite what anglers are telling him. But what if there are ways of ensuring a limited harvest without threatening the viability of the population (e.g., tags, limited seasons)? We don’t know because stakeholders are not being consulted about the lakes they fish.

Which brings me to another key piece of the Fish Conservation Management Strategy: stakeholder consultation. The strategy goes on and on about how anglers and other stakeholders should be consulted and their views taken into account when making management decisions. Yet, we have seen little current evidence this is happening. Perhaps there are good reasons to maintain C&R on all these lakes, but quoting surveys and studies that are not available for independent review does not build a lot of trust.

The Value of Consumptive Use
So, what’s wrong with consumptive use, anyway? Why are AEP fisheries biologists so afraid of it? Is it because there are too many anglers for the number of water bodies and fisheries available? That’s what some would have you believe. However, there are other jurisdictions with large human populations and fixed fishery resources that allow limited harvest, apparently without harming the resource. It just takes proper science, regulation and enforcement.

As I related in last month’s column, most game fish populations have a harvestable surplus of fish that are going to die anyway, whether from other predators, disease, starvation, or indeed C&R fishing. A limited harvest compensates that mortality to a certain extent and just might aid the health of that fish population and others in the lake.

As admitted in the Fish Conservation Management Strategy, there is mortality related to C&R. Some fish are foul-hooked or poorly handled and die after release. Others are just plain poached. So, if you are allowing C&R-only fishing, you are consuming the resource to a certain extent. By allowing some harvest, you just might reduce the number of soon-to-be-dead fish returning to the water, and indeed reduce poaching.

As you can see, there needs to be a serious discussion about what kinds of fishing Albertans want to have on their lakes and streams. Making decisions behind closed doors and using information not available to stakeholders is not the way for governments to do business.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Tracks and Spoor

Guest Blog: Since the announcement of the creation of two provincial parks in southwest Alberta last January, where the recreational use of off-highway vehicles will be phased out, there has been quite a heated discussion about off-highway vehicle use in wilderness areas across the province. In a previous guest blog, Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use, fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch discussed why these machines need to be regulated. In this blog, he  explains why users of these vehicles might not understand the damage they do. The piece was first published in Nature Alberta (Fall, 2015).

Tracks and Spoor
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Text and Photos Copyright © 2015

Golden yellow aspen leaves quietly rustle in the Porcupine Hills. The noise of summer motors no longer overwhelms the breath of wind caressing the ancient Douglas Firs. Emerson wrote, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods”. The motorized set either has not heard, or not understood the message, drowned out as it is in the screaming of fossil-fueled piston action. Perhaps the gods of off highway vehicle (OHV) users shout to make themselves understood.

Today, on a glorious autumn day, it is the gods of nature, the ones with soft, subtle voices, who are speaking. They remind me I am in a place named by the Blackfoot for the outline of trees on ridge tops, set against an improbably big sky at the edge of endless grassland. The Porcupine Hills must have appeared like an antidote to the grasslands where, at times, it seems there is nothing to lean your eyes on.

OHV eroded bank

A bank torn up by an OHV trail.

I have the labyrinth of trails to myself, unlike the summer, and I find myself paying close attention to the stories engraved on this landscape. This thought pattern becomes a trap and instead of just looking, and enjoying the subtle shifts of emphasis, I start to ponder what I observe. Colin Fletcher, the voice of hikers says, “In beautiful places, thought can be an impediment to pleasure.”

But it’s too late for subtle appreciation as I try to make sense of the pair of women’s panties beside the trail and a few feet later a pair of men’s underwear. Modesty prevents me from providing further description of these underpinnings, especially size, but I will characterize both as “ample”.

I’m not a competent enough tracker to read whether one set of underwear was meant as bait, or a signal; perhaps it was a case of one merely reacting to the other or a spontaneous gesture by both. I’m on a well used OHV trail and, as the OHV people like to point out, this is a family sport. I just didn’t realize conception on trail side was part of it, adding erection to the cycle of traction, compaction, erosion and sedimentation. Maybe OHV is an insider code for the “occasional horizontal, vertical” bop.

Maybe those of us who use our natural quads for backcountry travel are missing something. Do the vibrations, pounding, bouncing, tension, and torsion plus the harmonic engine whine induce a hypnotic state that excites passion and brings out naked, trailside lust? Is it mixed up in display, mud-gripper tires shooting up a rooster tail of dirt and rocks to indicate fitness to breed? Part must be the ability to explore new horizons by carving deep ruts up steep slopes. Prospective mates must discern this activity as an indication of superior foraging ability. Maybe it’s the rhythmic booming, farting exhaust, a primitive tribal drum call for an elaborate mating ceremony.

That’s what I’m thinking observing the spoor of the summer motor heads. But it is difficult to stalk the elusive OHV user to understand their rituals. Maybe these artifacts weren’t part of a mating ritual- the dance with no pants- but instead an alternative headgear to filter dust from a busy trail. All the trails I walk on are layered in dust- it puffs up under my boots. At speed, with a pack of quads or trail bikes, the scenery must be blotted out. I suppose you could experience something similar in an operating gravel pit, with the gravel crusher going full bore and all the fine dust being whipped into your face- as a bonus there are no trees to collide with when control is lost.

OHV trailThe trails I walk are rutted, in some places ground down to bedrock. Spinning wheels have advanced the rate of geological weathering and speeded up erosion much beyond the natural scale. Again ignoring Colin Fletcher’s admonishment to stop thinking I do some cross sectional measurements of trail sections to see how far down motorized traffic has worn them.

My back of the envelope calculations shock me. On nearly flat to moderate slopes, for every four paces, up to a half a ton of soil has eroded away. On steeper slopes approximately a ton of soil has slipped down slope, again every four paces. Occasional mini-Grand Canyons have formed on the very steep hillsides where water has finished the job begun by spinning tires. Down to bedrock and unnavigable by motorized contrivance, new trails now parallel these tank traps, hastening the eventual widening of the canyons.

One of the trails extends from the road in the valley bottom to the ridge top, about 1.5 km. For a trail that rarely exceeds a meter in width something approximating 300 tons of soil has eroded away. If this was farmland the rate of erosion would galvanize action, to stop it. And this is just one of a myriad of trails crisscrossing the Porcupine Hills.

Unknowingly, people driving on these trails have created a perfect storm of erosion in the Porcupine Hills. Every trail, every rut is a conduit, a straight-line feature that captures water from snowmelt and rainfall. These linear trails are an efficient interception and collection system, hastening the pour of water downslope. In their efficiency is the problem. To decrease erosion a watershed needs water to move slowly, at a constrained pace hindered and thwarted by vegetation. That way the speed of moving water, which creates the ability to erode, is reduced and more of it seeps into the soil creating a reservoir of water for drier periods. Like slow food we need slow runoff.

While testosterone charged riders test and vie with gravity on the hill slopes they can never really win. Gravity is a formidable force, and the soil loosened by tires and aided by runoff waters finds its way downhill. Beneath me, in the valley bottom is Beaver Creek. One shouldn’t have to connect many dots to imagine where all the soil eroding from the trails is headed.

But, I suppose someone without enough sense to pick up their underwear from beside the trail probably hasn’t a grasp of the simplest principles of hydrology (like water runs downhill) or of erosion (bare soil like a bare bottom moves). Just because we have technology doesn’t imply we also have wisdom.

Beaver Creek OHV ford

OHV trail crossing Beaver Creek.

What should be a stream that babbles along over gravel with water clear enough to see the bottom, Beaver Creek now muddles through banks of mud; the result of former hill slopes brought low by incessant tire action. The creek, tiny at best struggles with this undue load of sediment. It is equivalent to an incredibility long line of trucks with tandem loads of dirt toiling up to dump it all into the waters of Beaver Creek every year, year after year.

Researchers have found sediment runoff from OHV activity to be 2 to 20 times higher than the natural rate from undisturbed ground, depending on slope, precipitation and intensity of vehicle use. Insidiously, cumulatively this sediment pours off bare slopes and down rutted trails past most of the passersby who are oblivious to the phenomena.

Imagine the reaction if you brought just one truck load of dirt up to Beaver Creek and dumped it into the water. You’d risk prosecution under a number of federal and provincial statutes. If someone from the Beaver Creek watershed group caught you there might be some old-fashioned western justice meted out- the type that involves no court rooms and no lawyers.

I don’t actually think any of the ranchers of the Beaver Creek watershed group would engage in vigilante justice. But it must be frustrating, even infuriating to have worked for nearly a decade on restoration and improved management of their lands to look upstream and see the public land, the Forest Reserve, treated so poorly.

Aldo Leopold, the dean of ecologists observed, in 1924 that:
“Often it is necessary for landowners along a creek to work out a unified plan, else there is danger that the lack of diligence of one owner will result merely in passing the trouble down the creek to his neighbors.”

When the upstream owner is the Alberta government wouldn’t you think a stewardship ethic would be present and there would be attempts to manage land uses to prevent excessive erosion?

OHV erosion gully

An OHV trail that has eroded into a gully near Beaver Creek.

The Porcupine Hills are dangerously close to turning completely into a piston head race track and obstacle course with industrial overtones of petroleum development and clear-cut logging. It’s happened over time with the acquiescence of the land manager, the Alberta Forest Service. It’s classic benign neglect and before this landscape disappears completely in a pall of dust, is swallowed up by vehicle ruts and the streams become paved with mud some reflection and rethinking are necessary.

The Porcupine Hills represent an island of undulating hills, a gentle landscape with frequent viewscapes to the prairie grasslands of the east and the mountains to the west. Although short of water the landscape lends itself to outdoor recreation; the walks are gentle, there are no mountains to fall off and the place is easy to access from several large population centers in close proximity. What the Porcupine Hills lack is a unifying plan for the future that provides basic direction. Without direction, the landscape will end up where it is currently headed­­- a wasteland of chronic abuse.

Like the couple responding to stimuli on trailside, leaving their underwear behind, OHV users have responded to a void in resource management in our Forest Reserves. This has proliferated beyond the capacity of the land to absorb such use. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, roads and trails and OHVs are merely a case of the pig in the parlor.

Leopold elaborated, in 1925:
“We now recognize that the pig is all right- for bacon, which we all eat. But there no doubt was a time, soon after the discovery that many pigs meant much bacon, when our ancestors assumed that because a pig was so useful an institution he should be welcomed at all times and places. And I suppose that the first ‘enthusiast’ who raised the question of limiting his distribution was construed to be uneconomic, visionary and anti-pig.”

Like the metaphor of Leopold’s pigs we can have too many trails and too many OHVs on them.

Caring for the Porcupine Hills should take us back to the basics. First, we need to protect the watershed, a priority higher than any other. We can accomplish this by first restoring, then maintaining a healthy landscape, one that is resilient to erosion, traps moisture and is composed of native plants. That goes a major ways towards securing habitat for fish and wildlife, one of the key measuring sticks of landscape health. Caring means we have to reverse the syndrome of detachment and denial, where people who foul and despoil landscapes do not think their activity affects the natural world or anyone else.

As we secure the physical place we also need to secure a place for it in our minds, maybe in our hearts. At the end of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold wrote: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

We need old growth forest of the mind; a watershed of thought; an ecosystem of empathy; and, a landscape of understanding. In that place there needs to be respect and awareness for the natural world as well as a sense of limits.

We can create that place, where there is peace and quiet as an antidote to our otherwise busy, noisy lives. There we might experience the natural world and all of its treasures, benefits and glories as will future generations of enlightened citizens. We will hear the whispers of the gods. And our footprint will be fleeting.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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Harvestable Surplus

[Note: The following was first published in the January 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Setting bag limits for fish and game is a complicated business. Balancing the wants of anglers and hunters against the sustainability of fish and wildlife populations takes a lot of research, experience and wisdom to get it right. And you can be sure that whatever a manager decides will not satisfy all, or even some of the people, all the time.

2010-11-meredith-mylesmuledeer

Hunting opportunity is an important element in establishing the harvestable surplus.

One of the factors a biologist considers is the “harvestable surplus,” or the number of individuals that can be harvested from a fish or game population without affecting the long-term stability of that population. For example, let’s say a certain wildlife management unit (WMU) has a population of 1000 mule deer that have survived the winter: 800 does and 200 bucks, or a ratio of 4:1. Of the 800 does, the 480 adults give birth to 450 fawns in the coming spring (some does were not pregnant or lost their fetuses during the winter). This raises the overall population to 1450 deer. Since half of the new fawns are bucks, the overall doe to buck ratio is 1025 females to 425 males, or 2.4:1.

Because it is spring, a lot of food is being produced in forest and field to feed all. However, predators (e.g., coyotes, wolves, cougars) are also raising their young and hunt fawns (among other animals) to feed their growing families. They also take a few adult deer that were weakened by the winter, or are too old, or are just unlucky. As well, some deer die from collisions with vehicles on the highway that crosses the WMU, and still others die of disease. The result is the population is reduced to 1200 by the end of summer; of which 900 are does and 300 are bucks (3:1).

Table 1. Hypothetical Mule Deer Population Fluctuations, Pre-hunt

  No. Does No. Bucks Total
Post Winter Population 800 200 1000
Spring Births +225 +225 +450
Spring/Summer Mortality -125 -125 -250
Pre-hunt Population 900 300 1200

Now, as the wildlife biologist managing this WMU, you know that 1000 mule deer (4:1 doe to buck ratio) surviving the winter is the optimum number to sustain the population. But how many mule deer licences should you make available during the hunting draw for this WMU? Simple math will tell you there are 200 more animals than the winter carrying capacity will allow to survive. So, are 200 deer the harvestable surplus?

Well, maybe. Several other factors come in to play. They include:

  1. Statistically, 150 of those deer would be does and 50 would be bucks. Do you allow a doe season, or hunt just bucks?
  2. Not every hunter who is drawn is going to score a deer. The game harvest surveys for this WMU tell you that about 45% of hunters will be successful killing a mule deer. So, do you increase the number of licences to compensate?
  3. Predators, vehicle collisions, disease and starvation will have an impact on the population. Do you compensate for that?

Buck or Doe
Traditionally, buck-only seasons were put into place to protect the reproductive capacity of the population. One buck can impregnate several does, so reducing the number of bucks (to a point), while protecting the does will not significantly affect the number of fawns born the following spring. Doe seasons are put into place to reduce that reproduction, perhaps in reaction to a population that is threatening to exceed the habitat’s carrying capacity. As well, a wildlife manager considers hunter opportunity. If the deer population appears healthy enough, the manager might consider allowing a few doe tags to increase that opportunity.

In my example, if the ideal doe-buck ratio is 4:1, then 100 does and 100 bucks need to be removed to come to that ratio (800 does, 200 bucks). But should hunting do all the removing?

Hunter Success
The success of hunters is an important consideration. It can vary widely among different game animals, the WMU and the year. That’s why accurate game harvest surveys are important. In my example, the number of licences could be twice the number of deer to be removed by hunting.

“Natural” Mortality
Predators are going to take a number of deer throughout the year. The amount will vary with the number of deer and predators, snow conditions, etc. As well, the vehicles on the highway are going to kill deer. Disease is ever present and tends to kill those animals already weakened by injury or starvation. When calculating harvestable surplus, it is assumed the animals harvested will reduce the number killed by predators, vehicles, disease and starvation. This is called “compensatory mortality.” Now, if that substitution is one-for-one, then a manager could call the harvestable surplus the full 200 in my example. However, it is not a one-for-one trade. Animals are still going to die from other than human hunting.

So, in my rudimentary example, a manager might decide there will be 10% mortality from natural causes to the pre-hunt population of 1200 mule deer, or 90 does and 30 bucks. That leaves 10 does and 70 bucks to be harvested, or a harvestable surplus of 80 animals. Thus, the manager might propose issuing licences for 20 does and 140 bucks.

Table 2. Hypothetical Mule Deer Population, Determining Harvestable Surplus

  No. Does No. Bucks Total
Pre-hunt Population 900 300 1200
Natural Winter Mortality -90 -30 -120
Hunting Mortality -10 -70 -80
Post Winter Population 800 200 1000

The Reality
Now, my example is totally hypothetical and deer biologists might dispute my figures. But I believe it illustrates some of the issues game managers face. First, they need reasonably accurate population estimates. This requires costly aerial surveys, usually flown in the winter, and in times of budgetary restraint, only flown over “priority” areas.

Second, they need an estimate of the amount of natural mortality that occurs, as well as the birth rate for the population. These are not easy figures to obtain without expensive studies. What biologists often do is go to the scientific literature and determine these figures from studies that were made in their areas in the past, or from adjacent regions.

In lieu of specific information, game biologists will make educated guesstimates about what might be going on in the WMU, based on 1) hunter harvest reports, 2) their own observations, and 3) the observations of others, including hunters and landowners. As one professor told our class many decades ago, the most effective wildlife biologists are those who have worked in their areas a long time and are familiar with the wildlife and the local people who have stakes in that wildlife. Knowledge, wisdom and intuition play big roles.

Other factors are also in play. Regional and provincial goals for species could override what the local biologist might want. And one cannot forget the role of politics. No matter what a manager or a deputy minister recommends, politicians can override all—sometimes based on the concerns of one constituent.

Fish
Much of what I’ve said here could be applied to fisheries management. Indeed, fisheries biologists might have been the first to use the term “harvestable surplus” to describe sustainable fishing management. The concept is the same but obviously the management differs. What is important is that there is a harvestable surplus in a healthy fish population. The challenge is reasonably harvesting that surplus.

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use

On January 20, 2017, Alberta Environment and Parks announced the boundaries for the new Castle  Provincial Park and the expanded boundaries for the Castle Wildland Provincial Park in southwest Alberta. A draft management plan was also presented for public review. That plan calls for the phase-out of off-highway vehicle use in the parks. This is one of the most controversial sections of the plan but people who are concerned about the fate of the fish, wildlife and natural beauty of that area realize such a phase-out is necessary if we are going to keep what we go to wild areas to enjoy.

Guest Blog: I’ve asked fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch to post here a piece he wrote on the subject of off-highway vehicles for the Alberta Wilderness Association’s Wildlands Advocate in August of 2016. Regular readers here will remember Lorne’s piece he posted here in 2015 about Alberta’s  fisheries: Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish-Alberta’s Fisheries Crisis.

Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Text and Photos Copyright © 2016

Myths can be widely held but represent false beliefs or ideas. They can become more powerful and compelling than reality, especially if repeated often enough, and never challenged. Many use myths to support a particular action or activity. Listening to Off Highway Vehicle users for some time provides a recurring set of statements that fall into the category of myths. These are the prevalent ones:

Myth 1. It’s only 1% (or 3%, 5%, 10%…) of OHV users that cause problems.
OHV Trails-Willow CreekReality: It is the constant, unrelenting traffic on trails (and off trails) not designed for OHV use that is the major contributor to erosion, stream sedimentation, wildlife disruption and loss of quiet recreation. That includes everyone who operates an OHV.

Myth 2. OHV users know how to operate their machines to minimize impacts and be good stewards.
Reality: The sheer amount of damage and problem areas in the form of excessive erosion, ruts, mud holes, trail widening, avoidance of bridges, collapsed stream banks, following stream courses and multiple trail development suggests anything but stewardship. Many operate their machines in ways to magnify the damage.

Myth 3. OHV use has no more impact than foot and horse use.
OHV issuesReality: The argument OHVs exert no more pressure on the soil surface than a hiker or a horseback rider disappears under the impacts of OHV speed, spinning tires, wider trails and traffic volume. The linear orientation of OHV traffic disrupts drainage patterns, capturing and redirecting flow with increased erosion.

Myth 4. Fish and wildlife populations are not harmed by OHV use.
Reality: Thoroughly researched, objective, scientific studies say otherwise. Noise, traffic intensity and frequency, trail density, incursions into critical areas and increased sediment deposition in streams negatively impact fish and wildlife populations and their habitats.

Myth 5. The solution to the problems of OHV use includes more and better designed trails with bridges over streams.
Reality: Linear density (the measurement of trail length/ landscape area) already exceeds critical thresholds for many fish and wildlife species; building more trails will significantly harm fish and wildlife populations, several of which are already designated as “threatened”. More trails will intersect or parallel watercourses and require more bridges. Bridges do not successfully deal with sediment from trails since it is the approaches to stream crossings that continue to erode under OHV use.

Myth 6. Use of OHVs is a traditional, family-oriented pursuit that brings Albertans closer to nature.
OHV bogReality: While OHVs provide opportunity to access nature, to drive through (or over) nature there is no conclusive evidence their use connects people with nature. OHV use is a pursuit where people substitute gas engines for natural locomotion and distance themselves from the landscape with speed, technology and an obstacle-course mentality. Most seems activity focused, more so than using the machines to reach a destination, from which a direct connection is made with the landscape by walking. Activities like making new trails, racing, getting stuck, hill climbing, mud bogging, trashing wetlands and splashing through (and up) streams seem inconsistent with an appreciation for nature.

The phenomenon of OHV use is less than two decades old in Alberta, given that statistics on OHV ownership indicate relatively few people owned such machines even 15 years ago. Only 6% of Albertans engage in motorized recreational activity; 67% of Albertans have a preference for non-motorized outdoor recreation. Demographics suggest OHV users are more likely to be younger, male and single than a family group.

Myth 7. Other land uses (like logging) are more destructive that anything done by OHV users.
Logging OHV issuesReality: Resource extraction industries have created much of the access used by OHV users and the failure of government agencies to effect trail closure and restoration has exacerbated the issues. However, OHV use has never been considered and dealt with as a land use, complete with policy and regulation. In deflecting criticism from the impacts of OHV use, users fail to recognize cumulative effects and their contribution. OHV use can delay and prevent effective restoration and extends the life span of industrial impacts.

Myth 8. Educating OHV users will solve the problems.

The mud OHVs create on trails often drains into streams where it impacts fish.

The mud OHVs create on trails often drains into streams where it impacts fish.

Reality: Education can be a tool for those that recognize the issues, want to change their behavior and don’t have a sense of entitlement to freely engage in destructive OHV activity. The education option assumes people want to be educated, that voluntary behavioral shifts are possible with no other inducements (like regulation and enforcement), that forums exist where OHV users can be educated and that all users can read and respond positively to signage.

Education is not a public relations exercise by OHV users to maintain the status quo; it is an endeavor to change attitudes and actions. Only a small percentage of OHV users are represented by an organization. Most users are beyond the influence of an organization and any educational initiative.

Studies indicate OHV users don’t want their use restricted, want fewer regulations, do not support user fees, enforcement and government involvement, and want to continue to pursue their recreation with less, not more impediments.

Myth 9. There is a recognition amongst OHV users of the impact of their activity.
One-Four, Allison CreekReality: OHV users become more conditioned to negative impacts over time, less sensitized to damage the activity creates, causing the detrimental effects of OHV activity to become less (not more) obvious and less (not more) concerning. It is a case of perceptual blindness, an inability (or unwillingness) to recognize and acknowledge the obvious.

Myth 10. OHV activity generates substantial economic benefits, especially to local communities.
Reality: While OHV dealers benefit from sales, there is no conclusive evidence local communities have enhanced and substantial economic activity because of OHV use.

Money spent on OHVs and their use is discretionary, unlike mortgage payments, grocery bills and taxes. If people don’t spend such money on OHVs the money isn’t lost, it is redirected somewhere else in the Alberta economy. Most of the money spent to purchase an OHV and accessories doesn’t linger in Alberta; it enriches corporations far from Alberta.

The assertion of economic benefits from OHV use always fails to account for costs, including more road maintenance, fire suppression, weed control, emergency services, medical expenses from injuries and loss of economic benefits from bona fide land uses like ranching, equestrian use and ecotourism. Nor do the “benefits” factor in enforcement costs, trail restoration, impacts on downstream water users and loss of biodiversity (including declining angling and hunting opportunity).

OHV activity also precludes other recreational pursuits and the associated economic benefits due to avoidance of areas by people seeking quiet recreation because of noise, real and perceived harassment, concerns of individual safety and loss of ecological integrity.

When our “enjoyment” of the landscape blinds us to the impairment occurring it is time to ask whether the activity is legitimate. Repeating the myths of OHV use, in the hope the messages will become convincing will require an unattainable magic. Substituting myth for fact isn’t viable and risks continuing the stereotyping of OHV users as uncaring, thoughtless and irresponsible. At its root, reality is consensual. When a group, like OHV users, makes up its mind what it is going to see, then sees it, it is a crowd delusion. OHV use will never, and should never, trump watershed protection, maintenance of fish and wildlife populations (especially threatened species) and quiet forms of recreation that reconnect people with nature.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

Lorne has also posted a guest blog on why OHV users might not understand the damage they do, Tracks and Spoor.

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Are We Underutilizing Our Walleye?

[Note: The following was first published in the November 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

On arriving at the rural community hall, I saw the parking lot overflowing with pickups, cars and recreational vehicles. As expected, the hall was jammed with over 300 people seeking seats or just standing along the walls waiting for the proceedings to begin. Was this a wedding, funeral or dance? No, it was a meeting of anglers and other citizens concerned about the “Underutilized Fish Stocks in Northeast Alberta.” And the anger and frustration in the room was palatable.

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Anglers came from far and wide to voice their concerns about the state of our fisheries.

If you have fished many lakes across Alberta in the last couple of decades, you’ve found most are extremely limited with regard to the number of walleye you can legally “take home for the frying pan.” Some lakes have zero catch-and-keep limits; others allow a limited number of fish to be caught and kept through a special licence draw system. Government fisheries biologists told us the walleye populations in these lakes had either collapsed or were near collapse and the restrictions were necessary to allow the populations to grow and produce a harvestable surplus again. So, we waited, believing the populations would come back within a few years. Five years turned into ten, 10 to 20, with no significant changes to the restrictions.

In the meantime, anglers have noticed the numbers of walleye they’ve caught and released have increased in many of these lakes. As well, they’ve noticed the pike in the lakes are thinner, and the populations of other species such as white fish, yellow perch and forage fish have seemingly declined. In other words, there appears to be a harvestable surplus of walleye in these lakes, and a more liberal walleye harvest regime might be warranted if just to improve the overall health of all the fish species in the lakes. So, why hasn’t the government allowed more fish to be taken from these lakes?

That was the question the people wanted answered at the meeting held on September 7th at the Lac Bellevue Community Hall south of St. Paul. Unlike other public meetings about fisheries or wildlife management I’ve attended, the government did not organize this one. Ray Makowecki, a veteran fisheries biologist and Fish Chair for Zone 5 of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, organized the meeting. Ray Danyluk, a former Progressive Conservative Member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Lac La Biche-St. Paul, moderated the meeting. Although there were current politicians in the room (three Wildrose MLAs, four municipal mayors and reeves), they only spoke briefly at the end of the meeting. Also in the room were David Park, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) Section Head of Fisheries Management Policy, and Jordan Walker, Resource Manager for AEP’s Lower Athabasca Region. However, neither spoke by previous agreement. This meeting was for the anglers to express their concerns, and Park and Walker were there to listen.

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Ray Makowecki described how fish stocks are assessed and what might be the problems.

Makowecki started the meeting with a presentation on how fish stocks are assessed in the province and what he perceived might be the problem with current fisheries management policy in Alberta. The meeting was then opened to anyone in the room who wanted to speak about what they were seeing on the lakes they fished and possible solutions. A wide variety of anglers supported the contention that walleye needed to be harvested in many of the lakes in the northeast. Many expressed their frustration with the Alberta government’s lack of response to their concerns. Danyluk kept the meeting on track and ensured each speaker’s main points were recorded correctly.

FWIN
Makowecki spent much of his presentation on the Fall Walleye Index Netting (FWIN) program that AEP uses to determine the walleye status in a lake. Biologists set gill nets of varying mesh sizes in the lake for 24 hours. The nets are pulled and the fish caught are counted and measured, assessing fish abundance, size and age-class distribution, sex ratio, growth and overall health.

One of the key factors used to determine whether a walleye population can sustain a consumptive fishery is the Catch per Unit Effort (CUE). It is determined from the number of walleye caught in 100 square metres of net in 24 hours. According to Makowecki, the AEP considers a CUE greater than 30 to be a stable lake, and a CUE of less than 15 to be collapsed. He believes AEP uses a “precautionary fisheries management style” and that these numbers are too high. He said CUEs of greater than 30 rarely exist and that CUEs of less than 30 exist for many lakes where walleye appear to be abundant.

In an e-mail exchange I had with AEP fisheries managers Park and Walker, they confirmed a precautionary principle is used, stating “One of the guiding principles of the Alberta Fish Conservation and Management Strategy  is ‘The precautionary management principle will be applied to the conservation and management of wild fish.’ This means where we have insufficient factual information, we will make management recommendations erring on the side of caution.”

With regard to CUE thresholds being too high, Park and Walker wrote, “Catch-rates, or more properly population density, are only one of a suite of metrics used to determine the sustainability of a walleye population. When considered with the other metrics, FWIN catch-rate thresholds are not higher than necessary.”

Walleye Abundance

2006-06-meredith-duanewalleyelesserslavelk

How long has it been since you’ve been able to catch-and-keep a walleye without a special licence?

Concerning the observed abundance of walleye in lakes, Park and Walker expected anglers would begin to see catch rates improve as walleye populations recovered. However, they did not expect to hear that improved walleye densities were affecting the health of the fishery. They point out that walleye in remote un-fished lakes do just fine, with the other species in the lakes not at risk. Sure, they have seen some changes to lakes when walleye recover, such as spottail shiners declining and whitefish moving to deeper water. But “those should be considered normal responses to the recovery of the top predator in a lake.”

Keeping a Fish
One suggestion that received unanimous support at the meeting was allowing each angler to catch-and-keep one walleye per season at some of the lakes. Park and Walker stated this was possible “but for many lakes the sustainable harvest would be reached in a matter of days for small lakes (<1000 ha) or weeks for large lakes.” They went on to describe a trial in 2003 at Vincent and Long Lakes where the walleye populations had recovered after years of catch-and-release fishing. Anglers were allowed one walleye, any size. They took the annual allowable harvest of walleye in 2.1 days at Vincent Lake and 3.4 days at Long Lake. “In simple terms, most recovered walleye lakes can sustain a harvest of, at most, 1 walleye per hectare. Angler effort is usually 3 to 10 anglers per hectare.”

Makowecki believes there are too few biologists to gather the data necessary to set proper regulations for each lake. Unless lakes are adequately assessed, zero catch-and-keep limits could remain indefinitely on some of these lakes even though some have actually recovered.

So, are there underutilized walleye populations? That answer depends upon whom you believe. What is obvious to me is that the government biologists have failed to communicate adequately with the people who use the resource. As a result, many anglers no longer believe the biologists. That doesn’t bode well for the future of fishing in this province. Without trust and respect between anglers and biologists, little progress will be made to improve conditions.

Next Steps
The proceedings of the meeting were recorded and attendees filled out surveys to capture all concerns and potential solutions. Makowecki says the information will be summarized and the best solutions will be advanced to the AEP minister with the aid of local MLAs. He is hoping “the people will be able to catch and keep a walleye in all these lakes by April 1, 2017.”

Comments are always welcome (below).

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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